Those darn consumers! Always changing their minds about what kinds of food they want! If only they could be consistent! But they're not and they never will be.
Dietary fads are the ephemera of the dining room table. Carbs are good one day and bad the next. Right now, the public is on a protein binge that ought to be great for America's cattle ranchers. But (there is always a big "but" in every statement) they're flirting with plant-based protein. Burgers made of soy, pea meal, nuts and leghemoglobin? Are we to steal the feed bag from old Dobbin and replace our dinner dishes with it?
"Meat lovers don't love the fact that their meat comes from dead animals. They love it because of the sensory pleasures and the familiarity," said Impossible Foods CEO Pat Brown in a story aired by NBC's Miami affiliate. "If we can provide the things they value and make it from plants, not only will meat lovers be willing to buy it, but they will prefer to buy it."
Prefer? Brown proves, once again, that CEO's are completely capable of making the most outrageous and self-serving comments to help sell any kind of curiously developed and marketed product.
But he seems to be on to something dark and dismal. Today, a number of people are choosing meatless meat and dairy-less dairy as hoped-for healthier options. Burger King is test marketing Brown's Impossible Burgers in St. Louis, Mo., the first state to consider a law forbidding the use of real meat terms to describe plant- or cell-based meat-like substitutes. Five more states have put similar limits on these products and a sixth is about the join in.
It's not Burger King's first non-meat sandwich, though. (I do hesitate to call anything that doesn't start with a ground beef patty a burger). The BK boys have had MorningStar Farms veggie burger, a patty made from carrots, mushroom, oats and other ingredients, on their menu for several years but their marketing people say its appeal is limited mostly to vegans and vegetarians. The test tube formula for the patty, according to the company website is, "Vegetables (mushrooms, water chestnuts, onions, carrots, green bell peppers, red bell peppers, black olives), textured vegetable protein (soy protein concentrate, wheat gluten, water for hydration), egg whites, cooked brown rice (water, brown rice), rolled oats, corn oil, calcium caseinate, soy sauce (water, soybeans, salt, wheat), contains 2% or less of onion powder, cornstarch, salt, hydrolyzed vegetable protein (corn, soy and wheat), autolyzed yeast extract, natural flavors from non-meat sources, sugar, soy protein isolate, spices, garlic powder, dextrose, jalapeño pepper powder, celery extract."
The new sandwich, by the way, will be offered at all 59 St. Louis area Burger Kings for a dollar more than their standard all real meat Whopper. Current plans are to roll it out quickly to every other Burger King in America if the test goes smoothly and if Impossible Foods can ramp up production.
St. Louis, that poor, culinary impoverished river town, was also an innocent bystander last year, victimized by White Castle's nationwide distribution of 'The Impossible Slider.' In a nationwide roll out, the mini-burger chain foisted it on all 377 locations Sept. 12, a day that will live forever in culinary infamy. White Castle announced the evil little thing this way: "The compact delicacy, topped with smoked cheddar, pickles and onions ensconced in the fast-food chain's famously soft bun, costs $1.99."
A dollar ninety-nine for something that you can hold in the palm of a small child's hand? The pitiful patty lurking under the pickle slice weighs less than an ounce. Truth in labeling demands it be called a bread-and-pickle sandwich containing an imitation meat-like substance.
A meat industry friend, commenting on the looming threat of a much larger portion of the ridiculously faux meat offered by Burger King, compared it with the unfortunate time he sampled the tiny, little White Castle slider: "If it tastes like the Impossible Slider tasted, it will be awful. That thing was abominable, and I WISHED for condiments (which Sliders don't have, really) beyond pickle.
If you're watching your diet and are concerned about the ingredient list in an Impossible Meat burger (remember that soon-to-be-old adage, Don't eat anything with ingredients you can't pronounce), here's what the company’s web site says you'll be eating: "Water, soy protein concentrate, coconut oil, sunflower oil, natural flavors, 2% or less of: potato protein, methylcellulose, yeast extract, cultured dextrose, food starch modified, soy leghemoglobin, salt, soy protein isolate, mixed tocopherols (vitamin E), zinc gluconate, thiamine hydrochloride (vitamin B1), sodium ascorbate (vitamin C), niacin, pyridoxine hydrochloride (vitamin B6), riboflavin (vitamin B2), vitamin B12."
More nonsense in dairy case
Been to a decent supermarket lately? Take a yardstick with you and measure the shelf space given to milk and milk-based products. Measure the cold cases that were once reserved for real dairy products. It has expanded, maybe even doubled in size. But most of that extra space is occupied by imposters. It seems like every nut that can be squeezed now is the basic ingredient in a 'milk-like' substitute.
A well-stocked dairy case in your local hipster-serving market might contain bottles of a milky liquid based on either soy, almonds, coconut, oats, rice, cashews, macadamias, hemp (!: or quinoa. Real milk, of course, was the primary target but these dairy imitations are also used to manufacture yogurt, butter, cream, sour cream, cheese and ice cream.
Words of wit and wisdom from another industry observer friend who insists "Milk comes from mammals, nuts are 'juiced:' Your choices are cow, sheep or goat milk on one hand and 'nut juice' on the other."
Meatless meat and dairyless dairy are just the tip of the Titanic-sinking gastronomic iceberg. As with all things related to food, the options are exploding. Supermarkets that once offered thousand of products are now offering tens of thousands, just to keep up with what's popularly called 'disruptive' technology. Product features, such as free-range and grass-fed or pasture-raised, which were last centuries' amusing little marketing side bar, are quickly becoming major influences on consumers' purchasing decisions.
“The conscious consumer is here to stay," said Alison Angus of Euromonitor International. "The free and liberal lifestyle that is gaining traction among modern consumers today will see more and more conscious consumers adopting a flexible approach to veganism (and vegetarianism). This … allows individuals to find their own ways of embracing a more plant-based diet and to choose more plant-derived products,”.
Bottom line: My snarky comments aside, we're in the midst of a major change in the American diet and modern animal agriculture will have to figure out how to deal with it. Plant-based and lab-grown meat substitutes and dairy-like products are surging in popularity, driven by serious cash infusions from major investors and piggy-backing on the marketing strength of the largest food processing companies.
It's carnivores, by the way — not the still relatively small number of vegans or vegetarians — who are leading the way. Whether you think they're misinformed or not, a demand for healthier, more sustainable food is one reason people are sampling these options. If you're seriously tied into the way things were, be afraid. Be very afraid. "For the times (and the American diet) they are a-changin."